You probably wouldn’t imagine Paul Feig, the creator of the short-lived NBC classic “Freaks and Geeks,” staring death in the face during a ride-along with cops. And you shouldn’t.
“I’d be absolutely useless,” says Feig, whose directorial follow-up to “Bridesmaids,” the buddy cop comedy “The Heat,” opens Friday. “I’d be crouched down under the seat. No, I’m not a brave guy, but the good thing with this is we got a lot of the Boston PD and Boston FBI, who came on and consulted and were keeping us honest the whole time.”
The word “honest” comes up a lot during our chat at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The 50-year-old Feig—dressed, as is his custom for any work-related endeavor, in a dapper-looking suit—even brings back his love of scenes in which characters get drunk and honest. In a key scene in “The Heat,” FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Boston detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), polar opposite partners in an investigation, bond over a drink and then another drink and then another drink at a bar. All the drinking leads to some spontaneous dancing, another Feig favorite.
The Detroit-native, whose wife grew up in suburban Highland Park, talked about knowing where to draw the line with comedy, his advocacy for movies starring women, and feeling like a “proud father” for the “Freaks and Geeks” alums.
When you grew up in the Midwest and visited Chicago, what do you remember doing?
I was into magic, and back 1,000 years ago [at] Marshall Field’s the toy department used to have a magic counter. There was a guy who ran it; he was a magician, and he would do a show every hour. We’d come twice a year, and that was when I’d come and get my new magic tricks. My heart would be pounding whenever I’d walk into Marshall Field’s [Laughs]. So that’s how big of a nerd I was.
You’ve talked about both of the “Heat” characters having to be real badasses. How much authority did you have in instructing Sandra and Melissa in how to be a badass?
[Laughs] They’re pretty badass anyway. I just got out of the way so they didn’t go badass on my ass. They’re both real actresses, even though they’re comedy actresses. They really put everything through a very rigorous test. “Is this real? Would I really do this? Is this really in my character?” And I love that. What I don’t like is anything that’s silly or, “I’m just going for a laugh; it kind of hurts my character. It’s not really what a real person would do.” You never want an audience to go, “Oh, come on.” That’s the worst moment you can have when somebody goes, “That wouldn’t happen.” Or, “Why are they doing that?” Then you lose the audience.
How are you careful about that sort of thing? Melissa McCarthy’s so funny and talented, but you can look in the past few decades at people who, either because of the filmmaker or the project, just go completely overboard. How do you make sure it doesn’t go into that broad place?
My feeling is that people who are really good at comedy don’t do that. I think a lot of that comes from people who comedy isn’t their main thing, so there’s a tendency to [say], “Oh, bigger, bigger!” There’s a feeling of weird power you have on the set where, “I can make people do anything I want!” You can get somebody and have them go over the top and it seems really funny in the moment to the crew ‘cause you’re like, “I can’t believe they’re doing this crazy thing!” But the minute you get back onto the screen, it’s like a clown show going on. What I’ve found in my life is that anybody who’s great at comedy has this natural governor inside them. They can go up to a line and then when they hit that line, they will not go over it. It’s almost my job sometimes as a comedy director, [instructing] those people to go like, “You can go a little further. You think your line is here, but watching you I think you can go a little bit higher, and it’s not going to be unrealistic. It’s just going to give it an extra bit of funny.”
Have you ever looked back on something and, in retrospect, said, “Maybe we took it a little farther than it should have gone”?
No, because I do in the editing room. Sometimes on the set I’ll just [say], “Let’s just really go crazy,” knowing that when I get in the editing room that’s when I can control it. It’s not like a live performance, where it’s just out of my control. That’s why I do so many test screenings. You put it up and go, “Is the audience going to laugh?” They’ll tell us very quickly. The bathroom scene in “Bridesmaids”--we shot a ton of stuff. Some of it was really crazy.
More than what made it in? What other bodily functions are there?
Oh, yeah. There’s just more vomiting. There was one where Ellie Kemper’s character like thinks the bathroom’s full so she runs down to what she thinks is another bathroom and throws it open and it’s actually the woman who owns the place’s white office, and she projectile vomits all over the office. [Laughs] We very quickly went, “Too much; it’s too far.” That’s the thing with the math and the test screenings is you go, “Let’s push a little far; let’s pull back.” And you eventually find the right mix.
How amusing/surprising has it been for you to become the unofficial spokesman for women in film?
[Laughs] I love it; I embrace it. But at the same time, you go, “It’s 2013. Really, this is still an issue?” [Laughs] It’s I think the way business has been running for the last 30 years. At least the business of comedy. I think they have business models that show that for some reason women won’t show up. I’ve heard the evidence, but I just don’t buy any of it. Because I go, “Women are fifty percent of the population. Cleary they’re going to show up to see other funny women in a movie.”
What has to happen to put this conversation to bed?
It just has to keep making money. When movies like this come out, they have to do well.
Yeah, exactly. It is up to us as filmmakers to make sure that we’re not just going, “OK, just throw a bunch of women in, and then they’ll show up.” That’s not fair either to anybody. You really have to make sure that these women’s movies—movies starring women, let’s say that—are good. That you put them through the exact same rigors that you put any other good movie. Gone are the days, because of social media and the Internet and all that, where you can make a crappy movie and then try to pass it off with a bunch of ads and nobody knows. The minute the first audience goes in Friday morning and it’s not good, it goes out all over Twitter and everything. It’s good; it raises the bar for all of us.
Tons of people in the industry have high highs and low lows. Still, do you feel like you in particular have had particularly devastating situations with cancellations and things not getting picked up, and then “Bridesmaids” comes along and changes your life?
Oh, yeah. I’m not going to complain because I’ve always gotten to work in the field I wanted to. Yeah, it’s really been a rollercoaster ride. “Freaks and Geeks,” which the critics love but then it bombs on a ratings level and gets cancelled. That’s a drag. Then I make a couple of movies that don’t do well and suddenly you’re in movie jail and you can’t get out. [Laughs] And nobody’s going to let you make a movie again. Then all of a sudden, “Bridesmaids” pops up. I first read it in 2007, and then suddenly in 2010 it pops up again, and then Judd wants me to do it, Kristen wants me to do it. And then it does well. It’s really a nice rollercoaster, but what you learn each time is how to try to avoid the mistakes you made the previous time. It’s just a lot of trial and error. Everything comes from a pure place. You’re never (makes diabolical hand gestures), “I’m going to do something …” You’re like, “Oh, I think this will be good,” and then you go, “Oh, I wasn’t hard enough on myself.” That’s what it is; you learn more lessons about, “OK; this is where I should have been harder on things.”
That’s never a good thing if you sound like you’re hatching an evil plot for anything. “I’m going go get Subway for lunch.”
[Laughs] That’s right. That’s always part of my evil plot. [Laughs]
Since “Freaks and Geeks,” which is 15 years or so, Judd has looked at different phases of life in his work. How interested are you in doing that?
I always wanted honesty in what I do, but at the same time I think he’s plumbing his personal life a lot. I think with “Freaks and Geeks” I did it and I felt great about it. Now I’m having more fun doing bigger stories and then applying that realism to the characters in a bigger story. So that their motivations feel real. But at the same time I don’t feel like I need to at the moment get ultra-personal with the things I’m doing. My goal right now is to create movies and projects that people have a lot of fun at. The world has gotten [to be] a heavy, serious place. I realize people work tough jobs. They want entertainment, and I want them to show up and have a great time. And if within that I can slip in a message here or there or I can move them, that’s great, but the motivation is just to hear them laughing a lot.
Can you think of a time in the “Freaks and Geeks” process when you really saw star quality in someone?
Honestly, it was every member of that cast. We threw the doors open wide because I really wanted to make sure we got an interesting group of people. And saw a lot of great people. You’re always going, “Oh, that person is really good. That person’s good. They could be this, they could be that.” And then when the ones that you use come in, you’re like, “Oh my god!” And it really just blows you back out of your chair. So that was each one of those kids. “Kids” I call them now. They had that effect where you’re just like, “Oh my goodness” because they bring along a personality and a take that’s different and there’s a charisma you get. I honestly felt like every one of them were stars. The fact that they all became stars--that still kind of boggles my mind.
When James Franco got an Oscar nomination for “127 Hours,” was a certain part of you proud that you could put him in that direction?
Yeah, you feel like a proud father. I know other people have made them great, and I know Judd took a lot of them under his wing and taught them how to write and all this, which was great. Having been there at the beginning, you just go, “Oh, I feel like I raised them right.” Even on our show, we really kept everybody honest. We didn’t allow any star behavior. It’s very easy when you’re young to immediately get in that world and your head to expand. We were very good at crushing heads. [Laughs]
James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen all have very distinctive laughs. I’m wondering if you have impressions of any of those guys.
[Laughs] [Does Rogen impression] I guess that’s the kind of Seth that’s in that world then. It’s so funny because I did a TV pilot years ago and Seth came in to do a little role in it, and he came into the writer’s room. When he’s pitching jokes, the levity level in the room just goes crazy ‘cause he has that laugh that’s so funny. I wouldn’t say I do a good impersonation, but I love when I hear Seth laugh. What a joy.
How do you think the definition of the words “freaks” and “geeks” have changed since the show was on? Part of me was wondering if the show could even exist now because people seem to, whether it’s because of “Glee” or the Internet age or whatever, perceive those categories differently than they used to.
No, which is nice. I think they’ve become more like a good thing to be called than the insults that they used to be back in the day. I credit that all to the Internet because before the Internet we knew we were different, but we also felt like maybe we’re the only ones who are different or into stuff--whether it’s science fiction or comedy or cartoons, or whatever it is, whatever minutiae you’re into. You would walk around your school going, “I think it’s just me.” And then you find a couple of guys who are in a similar world or girls who had the same feeling. And you felt like, “OK, maybe we’re this weird little group.” But what’s great about the Internet is everything has a community, so there’s a pride in that. I think it’s fantastic; I don’t ever want it to go back to the way it was.
Do you find yourself now trying to find people who are into magic?
[Laughs] Now I’m at an age where it’s a happy coincidence when you run into people who are into that, but I still on the Internet will go and look at a lot of that stuff.
Oh, really. Like what?
Anything, really. All the sci-fi minutiae, and finding weird magic sites. Things from my past. That’s the one thing as you get older, you tend to fall back on the things that you grew up with. I also like to use the Internet to keep moving forward. I don’t like when people get older and they reject the new stuff. There’s something great in everything new coming out, even if it’s not in the wheelhouse that you like. I never want to be the guy like, “Oh, the crap that they’re coming out with today … our stuff was better.” It’s not true. People said that about stuff that I liked back then. If you stagnate, you die.
You’ve expressed frustration about what you perceive as guys’ humor vs. women’s humor. There’s a moment in “The Heat” when Melissa’s character is looking for her boss’ balls. Do you think in a way you can take guy humor, have women do it, and it makes it funnier?
Yeah, as long as the women aren’t acting like men. What’s so funny about that scene is that was Katie Dippold, who wrote the script. [She] wrote that; that was one of the first things that made me laugh: “She’s trying to find my balls.” It’s funny because I honestly have heard--my wife was a professional. I heard her once on the phone yelling at a guy like, “If you had any balls!” And it’s like, “OK, so it’s not just a guy thing.”
How do you know when it’s women acting like men or just having a different personality?
It’s a very distinct litmus test, but it’s basically you don’t want women doing something that you don’t think a woman would do. I get sent these scripts a lot, where it’s like the woman version of guys trying to get laid. I know women do that, but it’s a weird thing. Even just how they express it. I just vet all my actresses to make sure that I’m being honest. If we had that thing, and I hired a bunch of great actresses, comedic actresses, I would always be like, “Would you ever say this? Do you ever talk like this? Is this a motivation you guys have, and this is how you act it out?” And they will be very quick to tell me if it’s not real. That’s how “Bridesmaids” was working. Everything was like, “Would you say this?” And a lot of times, they’d say, “No.” It’s like, “OK, how would you do it?” “We’d do it this way.” “OK great.” And that’s why that movie feels so honest.
“Have you gone to the bathroom in the street?”
[Laughs] Yes, exactly. Somehow that seemed to pass the test. That’s the joke that women in the audience laughed at the hardest. Every time Maya would sink down in the street, they would literally scream with laughter. So I go, “Well, that must relate to something, some issue or some fear or something that women have.”
Have you seen “Black Rock”?
No, I haven’t.
I bring it up because Mark Duplass wrote it and his wife Katie Aselton directed it, and Katie had said that in Mark’s original script he wrote things for the female characters like, “What’s up, bitches?” And she was like, “Women don’t really say that.”
[Laughs] Exactly. That’s why you have to be vetted. Because there are worlds in which [a] guy will [say], “Come on, just say it, it’ll be funny!” And then you in the audience are going, “Come on, really?” There’s nothing worse than women watching going, “Really, that’s how we talk? Thank you, sir, for telling us how we talk.” [Laughs]
Is there something women misperceive about how men talk?
Oh, yeah. Here’s the thing. You need a mix of people running these things. Honestly, as much as I can complain about some chick flicks, some of them have been made by women, and they’re still not good. [Laughs] A lot of times it’s because the male characters are too much this or too asshole-y and you go, “OK, now you’re doing a [bleepy] version of what we think women do.” There needs to be a mix so that there’s a constant vetting and people are making sure that it’s honest. That’s why I like to have a lot of women around what I’m doing, and I also have guys weighing in too. I’m almost watching the guys: “OK, this is how they do it, and if women wanted to go this way, they would go, ‘I don’t think we would do that that way also.’”
What’s a rap song you know the words to?
[Laughs] I kind of know “No Love” by Eminem and Lil Wayne.
Can you remind me how that goes?
Oh god, you put me on the spot. What is it? Oh, [bleep]. I know it says (rapping), “Bitch, you get no love.” Which is perfectly in keeping with my trying to empower ladies. [Laughs]
His preferred restaurant in Chicago: RL
What his hypothetical rap name would be: “Flapjack. I’d just be Flapjack. Or I’d be DJ Flapjack if I was spinning things … I’m such a fan of Eminem and how he raps. It’s like an event. I don’t know how he does it that fast and so off rhythm like that. It’s pretty cool. And Lil Wayne is awesome too.”
What new-ish band he’s listening to: LCD Soundsystem
A movie that scared him as a kid: “Alien.” “Scared the hell out of me. I literally said I thought I was going to die. Because I liked comedy but we loved sci-fi, so I thought it was going to be this sci-fi ‘Star Wars’ thing, and I’m sitting there and from five minutes in I’m numb, absolutely numb in fear. And really didn’t enjoy being that scared. And also ‘Jaws’ scared the living hell out of me too … I don’t like scary movies. I avoid them like the plague. I’ll go see them; they’re not as scary as I think they’re going to be, but ‘Alien’ was beyond.”
Guilty pleasure TV Show: “Antiques Roadshow.” “That’s like an old man guilty pleasure.” [Laughs] (He also loves “Game of Thrones” and “The Soup.”)
Who he wants to work with: Amy Poehler, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence
What else he wants to do: “I’d love to write and produce something on Broadway. I love live shows, and it would be fun to do a big musical … I will admit that I for many years have thought we should do ‘Freaks and Geeks’ as a musical on stage. There’s a chance; you never know … I’m 100 percent serious. If you got it right. Again, these things are all like, how do you get it right? It’s all execution in this biz we call show.”